I T ' S   I N   T H E   E Y E S  &  H A N D S

An interview & story by Eric Olson

Ivan Dimitrov extends his hand diffidently, almost shyly and grasps mine. It is not a crushing grip, instead there is a surprising delicacy and grace. It feels like being surrounded by a warm, kind force. His hands are thick and immensely strong, in contract, his fingernails are groomed precisely like those of a concert guitarist. 

These are the hands of a man who has mined coal in unventilated shafts 1,500 feet underground, cut hay with a scythe under demanding conditions, and carved entire trees by hand. These are hands that also carve delicate, cascading strands of hair on a woman's head, undulating folds on a saintly robe, lavish garland borders of fruit and flowers... 

Ivan is currently working on a large carving project to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Holy Trinity Orthodox Church of Santa Fe

The Master Carver

Here is a photograph of Ivan as he appears today,
 his penetrating eyes meeting yours directly, his hands holding a picture of himself as a young man carving a tree while
 sitting in a huge chair - also carved by him. He wears his signature Balkan beret - his white hair in a ponytail behind -  with flair and quiet distinction, a symbol of the laborer,
 the old world craftsman, a badge of history and origin, 
 a statement of individuality and unassuming pride. 

He gazes at me quietly, the eyes taking everything in like a wary and experienced survivor. Yet he conveys the sense that nothing could please him more than seeing me there. It is impossible to look at Ivan's eyes without seeing a twinkle, a delight and an ineffable mischievousness. 

These eyes tell a long and complex story of triumph and disaster; of a creative spirit crushed under the thumb of an authoritarian government; of a long, life-journey that took him from a small town in his native Bulgaria to  Santa Fe. They are the eyes of wisdom, humor, talent, pride, and humility.

His name is pronounced e-VON, not the expected EYE-van, and somehow this makes a difference. He is different from anyone I've ever met. He is an artist of prodigious talent and production, but when asked, he demurs and describes himself merely as a hard worker. 

Ivan is a humble man, deferential and polite, but never subservient. He says that in his native Bulgaria he was poor and often hungry. But in America,  he grins, "I'm still poor, but I never go hungry." To him the most important treasures in life are not money or things but health and freedom. With justifiable pride and a bright flash of delight, he exclaims: "I enjoy my freedom!

Every project begins with a drawing before it wends its way onto the waiting wood...

Ivan's knowledge and craftsmanship was formed over many years through a long story of struggle and adversity. After winning awards in art school, he was expelled for being too outspoken - an enemy of Communism

Forced to labor in a factory cutting limestone blocks by hand to feed huge ovens that rendered them into powder, he escaped and began a wandering life. Reflecting on his many experiences of punishment and hard labor, he says: "You can break my vertebrae, but not my will."

His first studio...

He took up woodcarving, making gouges (chisels) from discarded screwdrivers and tiny tools for details out of the ribs of old umbrellas. He foraged the countryside seeking woodcarvers who had passed away so he could buy their tools. He carved and wandered through Europe - Paris and London - and eventually was sponsored to come to America in 1998.

His multitude of tools are things of beauty, some, like the vice above, dating to the 1800's.

A mold for making a guitar...Ivan teaches classes at the Community College and he and his talented son both play these beautiful instruments. 

Ivan can trace his lineage back to ancient Mesopotamia, and his independent spirit and artistic temperament indeed seem to bubble up from that history like sap rising inevitably and persistently within an ancient tree. 


Q. What do you like most in life?

He chuckles briefly, leans forward as if to share a deep secret and whispers: Beautiful Women! "When I work," he says, "I must have absolute concentration. The work cannot be done otherwise. But after several days of this I need to get out and talk with people.

Q. What is it like to work with such focus? 

"When I work, I talk with myself," he says, glancing up to make sure I'm listening. "Talking with yourself is the best conversation. He adds: Your craftsmanship/knowledge is the best treasure there is. It follows you everywhere. It is better than any money or object. No customs officer can confiscate it. No police can take it away. it is always there for you."     


Q. Are you resentful that your life has been difficult?

"Adversity is the best way to cultivate character. Life is like a river that begins with a single drop. Then more drops are added until a little stream forms. At first it is a twisting, steep path, but slowly more and more drops come and a river is formed. Eventually the river becomes a wide, flat place. There the water is deep and slow..."     



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Thank you Eric for writing such a beautiful story...


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